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Saint Marks: Words, Images, and What Persists

Saint Marks: Words, Images, and What Persists

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Saint Marks: Words, Images, and What Persists

315 pages
4 heures
Dec 4, 2018


Saint Marks invokes and pluralizes the figure of Mark in order to explore relations between painting and writing. Emphasizing that the saint is not a singular biographical individual in the various biblical and hagiographic texts that involve someone so named, the book takes as its ultimate concern the kinds of material life that outlive the human subject.

From the incommensurate, anachronic instances in which Saint Mark can be located—among them, as Evangelist or as patron saint of Venice—the book traces Mark’s afterlives within art, sacred texts, and literature in conversation with such art historians and philosophers as Aby Warburg, Giorgio Agamben, Georges Didi-Huberman, T. J. Clark, Adrian Stokes, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Goldberg begins in sixteenth-century Venice, with a series of paintings by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Tintoretto, and others, that have virtually nothing to do with biblical texts. He turns then to the legacy of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice and through it to questions about what painting does as painting. A final chapter turns to ancient texts, considering the Gospel of St. Mark together with its double, the so-called Secret Gospel that has occasioned controversy for its homoerotic implications.

The posthumous persistence of a life is what the gospel named Mark calls the Kingdom of God. Saints have posthumous lives; but so too do paintings and texts. This major interdisciplinary study by one of our most astute cultural critics extends what might have been a purely theological subject to embrace questions central to cultural practice from the ancient world to the present.

Dec 4, 2018

À propos de l'auteur

Jonathan Goldberg is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Emory University. His most recent books include Melodrama: An Aesthetics of Impossibility (Duke, 2016), The Seeds of Things: Theorizing Sexuality and Materiality in Renaissance Representations (Fordham, 2009), and the co-edited volume This Distracted Globe: Worldmaking in Early Modern Literature (Fordham, 2016).

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Saint Marks - Jonathan Goldberg




Painting Marks


Atmospherics (Bellini)

The two chapters in Painting Marks focus on paintings made in the sixteenth century for the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice; these paintings reflect textual traditions of the Middle Ages, narratives about St. Mark of the sort gathered in the Legenda aurea. I begin this discussion of representations of Mark, however, with an altarpiece by Titian made early in his career (in the first decade or so of the sixteenth century); chronologically contemporaneous with the first paintings supplied for the Scuola, Titian’s altarpiece anticipates and embodies stylistic features found in those produced for the Scuola years later. Occupying this divided historicity, Titian’s painting serves stylistically to counter some prevailing ways of reading paintings that imagine them as if determined by a singular historicity. Titian’s St. Mark altarpiece (now in Santa Maria della Salute) has been viewed as such a typical Venetian image of the saint (plate 1). In examining it, I am most concerned to explore what that typicality means. I take David Rosand’s acclaimed and authoritative work to index it. Titian’s painting is a recognizable instance of a sacra conversazione: its saint sits aloft on a throne, four saints stand below, two on either side of it, paired. Rosand discusses it in Myths of Venice, a study of artistic representations of what the subtitle of his book calls the figurations of a state.¹ It is treating that figuration as the entirety of artistic meaning that I want to call into question. In his chapter on St. Mark, the figure who came to be the patron saint of Venice, Rosand sums up the meaning of Titian’s painting this way: Mark here personifies Venice, suffering the calamity and, at the same time, represents its prayers for salvation from that pestilence (Rosand, Myths of Venice, 66). The calamity Rosand has in mind is the plague conventionally associated with the other saints in the painting, the wounded St. Roch and St. Sebastian on the right, the paired physician saints Cosmas and Damian on the left. The shadow that crosses Mark’s face conveys the suffering of Venice; it bespeaks the darkness of the moment, Rosand contends. Mark’s assumption of the throne aloft figures the hoped-for, all-but-certain salvation of Venice.

Rosand’s summary of the import of the painting quickly becomes a narrative; it opens with an equation, Mark = Venice. My use of an equation mark follows his, as when he offers the gist of the entire book as a study of the figural equations of Justice = Venice or Virgin = Venice or lion = St. Mark = Venice (5). These equations ignore manifest differences in the meanings of words and images to produce something like the biographical reduction that C. Clifton Black resists in his study of the image of Mark in canonical biblical texts and the church fathers of the first four centuries. Black is skeptical that a singular biographical Mark can be assembled from such various evidence, regarding the creation of that singular figure as part of the work of church foundation. Mark’s association with Alexandria is a puzzle, unmotivated by anything in the earliest textual traditions, that can be explained that way: Once Mark’s derivative apostolicity becomes established in the tradition, Black writes, alluding to how Mark became associated with Peter and Rome, the connection to Alexandria can be understood as a reiteration of that association, a way of providing an apostolic foundation for a major church, the new one in Alexandria.² Mutatis mutandis, the same can be said of Mark’s much later connection to Venice. Because Mark is a figure of association, rather than a singularity, his name has this kind of mobility. It is anything but an identity.

Titian’s painting belies a straightforward equation of Mark with Venice precisely by placing him where one might expect Mary to be found. Such a substitution does not easily identify Mary and Mark, even if there is a tradition that the foundation of Venice coincided with the date on which Mary conceived, upon which Rosand depends for his equation of the two figures.³ If all figuration means Venice, figuration gives way to dis-figuration, referentiality. In Venice all figuration ends.

Reading this way produces what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick memorably terms a Christmas effect.⁴ She has in mind the depressing thing about the Christmas season when every institution proclaims a message of sameness, usually centered on the family, in which all citizens are presumed to be interchangeable with one another, everyone identical in their desires and aspirations. Anyone against Christmas has to be the enemy. The Christmas effect is an instance of ideology at work to enforce group experience as something invisible and inevitable. Does the work of art only function as apparatuses for such shared meaning? Sedgwick counters this assumption with a question that guides me throughout this book: "What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing?" (Tendencies, 6). In his own way, Black’s reading of Mark poses a similar vantage point, a way to see things in their complex skewedness rather than homogenized into an official meaning that supports the wish of those in power of being everywhere at once. It would outrun the evidence to suggest that the church fathers deliberately or even consciously queered their developing portrayal of the Second Evangelist, Black writes (Mark: Images, 214). It outruns the evidence, I want to suggest, both that Titian deliberately sought to do no more than reiterate Venetian ideology, just as it is questionable that he deliberately sought to queer it. The meanings of a work of art outrun the intentions of the artist or the programs they may have been given by their patrons.

If the entire meaning of Titian’s St. Mark rests on the figure of Mark, it is an odd fact about it that the painting is full of fingers pointing, none of them directed at St. Mark. Whatever hope may be housed in him that Venice always will remain La serenissima, those gestures invite the viewer to look elsewhere. There is a congruence in this dispersal of the gaze with the history of Mark’s attachment to Venice. That story was a late invention added to the multiple Marks who bear versions of that name in the New Testament. Mark was not the original patron saint of Venice: the state’s eternal sameness was invented over the course of the several centuries in which a retrospective narrative was developed to produce the Mark who came to be the saint who had always claimed and been claimed by Venice in his missionary work. This history of the making of Mark as Venice’s patron saint, with its gaps, discontinuities, contentions, and inventions, certainly is not the referent in Titian’s painting; nonetheless, Mark’s assumption of the place where we might expect to find Mary signals (or could remind us of) that history of replacement and invites us to view the equation of Mark and Mary with a critical eye. Mark’s displacement of Theodore, the original patron saint that linked Venice to the East, was, over several centuries, joined to the story of the city miraculously born (as Rosand puts it) on March 25, 421, the date but not the year of the Annunciation. The two events didn’t occur at the same time. The story of Mark as patron saint of Venice got started only in the ninth century, with the account of the theft of Mark’s body from Alexandria in 828–29; it did not cohere until the thirteenth century, at which time the relationship between Mark and Venice was shifted back to the city’s beginnings. By the sixteenth century, it was certainly possible to put one foundational story (in which Venice has its origins on the day the Virgin conceived) in the place of the other (in which Mark was called to be the patron saint of the city). The way to punctuate this coincidence might be a question mark rather than an equation mark.

In The Altarpiece in Venice, Peter Humfrey offers an account of the occasion and meaning of Titian’s painting that bears comparison with Rosand’s. Humfrey is skeptical about a plague connection; he questions the idea that the painting functioned as part of the state apparatus, responding to some art historians who had argued that Titian had been commissioned by the state. He points out that the painting, now located in the Salute, close to the heart of Venetian power, originally hung in the Augustinian church of S. Spirito in Isola in the Venetian lagoon. Humfrey further doubts whether the painting should be understood to be determined by the verticality of its sacra conversazione format with Mark at the top, where Rosand focuses the point of the painting. Humfrey attends to its lower register where he sees Titian working to produce a more modern image, one like Sebastiano del Piombo’s horizontal S. Giovanni Crisostomo altarpiece. He admires Titian’s classically proportioned figures, some of which exude a Giorgionesque yearning (St. Roch) or introspection (St. Sebastian), while the others are already more vigorous, decisive and rhetorical in their gestures (242); his remarks ignore the figure of Mark who, as Humfrey notes, is difficult to locate in the incoherent space he occupies in the painting (the various architectural elements of the painting do not add up to produce a consistent sense of depth). Do the upper and lower registers of this painting add up to a unity? The space that Mark occupies does not read convincingly; there is, moreover, no way of telling how he got where he is—indeed no throne is visible to explain his seated stance.

While Humfrey’s reading opens possibilities foreclosed by Rosand, it finally is not so far from his, for he too looks for references outside the painting, supposing, for instance, that the figures of Damian and Cosmas may be portraits (their assertive realism suggests this to him); this leads him to speculate that the occasion of the painting may have been to commemorate a recently dead physician, in which case the plague saints are there for their general appropriateness, if not because of the specific outbreak that Rosand supposes. Humfrey explains the odd space of the painting by speculating that in its original setting it would not have seemed odd. Humfrey’s version of history—of the modernity of Titian’s altarpiece—leads him to ignore its verticality and to suppose that the horizontality of Sebastiano del Piombo’s altarpiece equals modernity, a questionable assumption given the feat performed by Giorgione in the Castelfranco Madonna (plate 2) where the Virgin is at an all but insuperable distance from the figures below her throne. Giorgione’s extremity of placement, coupled with the kinds of atmospheric effects Titian learned from him, suggests that modernity is more complex than Humfrey’s model of temporal supersession can capture.

Humfrey does not treat the painting as one more iteration of the myth of Venice. Indeed, he has nothing to say about the figure of St. Mark in the painting except to identify him, noting that since the painting was made for a chapel dedicated to Mark, he must be its presiding figure. Mark is not, in his reading, the culminating point of the meaning of the painting. He does not mention what is surely one of the oddest things about that representation, the shadow that obscures Mark’s face and shrouds one of his shoulders (perhaps this visual evidence explains why he fails to notice the figure in his discussion of the painting). In an earlier consideration of Titian’s altarpiece in Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice, Rosand did take up that feature of the painting, noting as well asymmetries in its composition (for him, this made Titian’s painting more revolutionary than Sebastiano del Piombo’s contemporaneous altarpiece). Although in his earlier study he assumes that the plague was the immediate cause of the painting, he does not confine his analysis to an ideological explanation; the shadow across Mark’s face is understood more fundamentally in terms of the expressive function of the deliberate absence of light. Rosand takes this to be an early instance of something that Titian learned from Giorgione and made his own: the shadow cast across the face became a sign of tragedy in his art, meant to engage an affective response; it is a fundamental expressive theme (Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice, 52).

Rosand opens the way to further discussion when he points to the expressive function of the shadow in Titian’s painting. In turning conditions of visibility into a theme, a sign of tragedy, Rosand immediately poses questions that I will be asking throughout this book: What happens to paintings when we turn them into words in order to give them meaning? How does a literary form (tragedy) relate to how painting deploys light and shadow? Can painterly concerns be rendered immediately into something else, metaphorized into a verbal translation? What is the painting letting us see? What is it obscuring? Readings like Rosand’s and Humfrey’s are often most persuasive when they tell us things we can’t know simply by looking, for instance when they provide identifications of figures that often depend upon conventions—arrows for St. Sebastian, a thigh wound for St. Roch; we know who these figures are thanks to their attributes, indeed to their pairing in numerous other paintings.⁵ Knowing who figures are can lead us to think we have said everything there is to say when we identify them; commentary often stops when such identifications are provided. This is perhaps even more the case in identifying the far less obvious figures of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Titian’s altarpiece. Presumably the vial that one of them holds contains medicine, thereby providing a clue to who they are; the fact that we don’t know which one is Damian and which Cosmas reminds us that the two are conventionally paired (sometimes twinned, although not here). Mark is not signaled by his usual attribute, the lion, in this painting; the book he carries could be the gospel he is supposed to have written, but other saints—Jerome for instance—are often figured with a book; beard and male balding pattern are not unusual for the figure of Mark, although not absolutely inevitable. Knowing that the painting was made for a chapel dedicated to Mark is the surest way to know who the figure is.

But what does it mean to name these figures? Certainly there are paintings where identification seems to be what is being asked of the viewer—paintings with inscriptions on them invite the supposition that when viewers know who someone is, they know what they need to know. However, it could be argued just as readily that words on a painting relieve the viewer of the puzzle of identification and thus enable a looking that isn’t merely searching for a clue to name the figure. So often art historians (to whom one remains grateful) puzzle out who or what is being represented as if that is all one needs to know. (When that can’t be discerned an entire industry of interpretation is born: Giorgione’s Tempesta provides a perfect example.)

What would happen if we attempted to look at Titian’s altarpiece alongside of but also beyond or aside from the names we can supply for the figures? What happens, that is, if we see the figures in the painting as images before we turn them into words? In posing this question I am not assuming we can do without words to describe what we see. The play of light and dark, crucial to what we see, and line and color, fundamental to the painting, are used toward figurative ends. We see hands, faces, bodies; at the same time, we see paint. We can attempt to follow pointing fingers or the direction of the gazes of figures in the painting as invitations to see visual connections that are not there simply to further the identifications that names provide or connections to the stories we may be supposed to know once we say St. Roch or St. Mark. Ultimately such looking might provoke questions rather than equations.

Robert Kiely has followed the pointing fingers and the gazes in this painting. Although I have some questions about the interpretation he offers, what is important about these visual itineraries is the number of possibly irreconcilable paths they open. The two figures on the left point to the two on the right; the one on the left who looks in our direction looks at the figure beside him, depicted in profile, swathed in red. He gestures to the right, but looks up in the direction of Mark impossibly located at the top of the column on which he seems both to be leaning backward and thrusting forward. Mark looks vaguely in the direction of the figure looking up; he certainly does not look to the right where the figures on the left are pointing. The shadow across his face only adds to the uncertainty of the object of St. Mark’s gaze, if indeed he is looking anywhere in particular. He seems really to be staring into space. On the right side of the painting, St. Roch looks left, gazing upward, but indeterminately; his one visible hand gestures to the right, to the wound by which we know him. We can scan the image from right to left by way of the circuit of gazes from Roch to the younger man on the left to Mark; or we can scan the image from left to right by following the hand gestures that seem to lead to Roch’s wound and perhaps onward to the other figure identifiable as St. Sebastian thanks to the arrow piercing his chest; he seems outside these movements of hands and eyes. He looks down and away to the right, his eyes hooded; his gaze corresponds to Mark’s only insofar as both figures look away from the play of gazes and fingers that constitute the sacred conversation. "If this is a sacra conversazione, Kiely remarks, some of the characters seem not to be listening" (Blessed and Beautiful, 141).

The viewer who follows the gestures of hands from left to right is led to St. Roch’s thigh, to pierced flesh and the intimation of the penetrability of the male body that Kiely takes to be at the heart of the questions the painting explores: can there be a masculinity that is a site of vulnerability? Does Christianity’s embrace of suffering also entail an erotics? The right side of the painting is dominated by male flesh, St. Roch’s bared thigh, the body of St. Sebastian, fully naked except for the part of him that is ostentatiously draped. I use the word ostentatiously deliberately, recalling Leo Steinberg’s claims about the matching in Renaissance paintings of Jesus of an "ostentatio genitalium comparable to the canonic ostentatio vulnerum, the showing forth of the wounds."⁶ These two forms of showing are divided between the wounded St. Roch and the ferocious knot below St. Sebastian’s waist that suggests a massive erection. It functions in counterpoint to the imperturbability or self-regard of the vulnerable naked youth who is somehow undisturbed by the arrow piercing his chest. Christ’s genitality, Steinberg argues, is often displayed in the same kind of knots and swirls of drapery as cover Titian’s St. Sebastian. (St. Roch’s thigh wound is conventionally a displacement of the plague buboes he had on his groin.) Such figuration, for Christ, shows that he is uncannily at once divine and human, vulnerable. The member that might convict him of fallen humanity is raised to mean the opposite, the resurrection of the flesh.

In a conventional sacra conversazione a thematic of the flesh would settle on the figure of Mary with the infant Jesus on her lap, combining paradoxes of virginal sexuality and divine incarnation in the figure of the vulnerable child (often sporting, as Steinberg shows, an erect, if tiny penis). Can Mark occupy Mary’s place? Kiely claims that he does, assuring his readers that the great patron and protector of Venice countenances Sebastian’s display of the beauty of a less aggressive masculinity beneath him (the figure of Mark is no pinup). Kiely’s reading offers an ideological assurance comparable to Rosand’s. His Mark also is an embodiment of Venice, here, it seems, proffering a quasi-liberal assurance of the toleration of difference even as he remains a great patron and protector, presumably seated securely above the figures below him. Yet the figure of Mark functions mainly as swirling drapery, pink folds receding into shadow and thrusting blue. His drapery connects Mark to the splendidly robed Saints Cosmas and Damian, but also to St. Sebastian; it is his billowing drapery that suggests erect male genitals. The eye of the viewer is led, guided by the tiled floor, to the low angled view from below of the vanishing point of the painting, the column upon which St. Mark is perched. The column is covered, draped in a green unique in the painting’s palette. While the eye is led by the hands in the painting to wounded flesh and from there to drapery whose covering alludes to what is hidden beneath, the vanishing point of the painting leads to a column atop which folds of drapery seem to cascade. Mark’s lap does not suggest male genitalia beneath. Nor does the column seem particularly phallic. The column is not an unusual motif in altarpieces like this (indeed, Giorgione’s Castelfranco Madonna sits above a green cloth). Rather than a piece of rich tapestry, one whose painting might suggest opulence and texture, Titian’s rather flat fabric with its vertical linear design does not suggest folds but is more like the geometric tiles of the floor except that the lines, interrupted by the horizontal of the stairs, are not continuous with it. This emphasis on noncontinuous line frustrates what we might expect: the clarity and rationality of disegno which, along with his abilities at colorito, helped make Titian an instant classic.⁷ Titian’s painting, I am suggesting, is composed of crossed visual demands—of fingers and gazes—and of a crossed thematic of the flesh that would more readily resolve, however paradoxically, if Virgin and Child were at its apex. So, perhaps it can be said that the shadow that crosses Mark’s face and arm and visually divides the figure is close to the enigma of meaning in the painting; he is not there simply to be ignored, nor does he resolve the meaning of the image.

If this painting is about the play between what is seen and what is covered, it sustains an opacity that any equation sign necessarily obscures. The shadow across Mark remains impenetrable. Can one thing be another? How does a canvas, which is a field of color, get us to the words St. Mark? Because this painting is (or is called) "the St. Mark altarpiece," it especially provokes the concerns in this chapter about how St. Mark, and the stories that attach him to Venice, are represented. It is understandable why Humfrey more or less ignores the figure of Mark in the painting, why Rosand translates him immediately into a figure for Venice. His covered, shadowed, veiled face withholds. How did Mark ever come to be where he sits so uncomfortably in this painting?

Some answers to this question are offered in an immensely learned essay by Thomas E. A. Dale on the politics of some of the earliest images of St. Mark; Dale shows how the Adriatic versions of Mark’s legend … found primarily in the monumental art of the regions contended for ownership of the figure, a contest that Venice won.⁸ The shadowy figure of Mark in Titian’s painting is at once in a triumphal position

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